Customer Empathy: What Is it and How to Develop It

Published on:

April 27, 2021

Customer Empathy

Wouldn’t it be great to really know what’s going on in your customer’s brain?

Not just in terms of what they’re thinking, but what they’re feeling too.

Until the boffins at big tech figure out telepathy, we’re stuck guessing for now.

This said, there are techniques you can use to better understand and empathise with your customers; one of which is customer empathy.

In this article we’ll be looking at:

  • What is customer empathy?
  • The benefits of customer empathy
  • Examples of customer empathy in practice
  • Exercises to develop customer empathy
  • Customer empathy maps and how to use them

What Is Customer Empathy?

Customer empathy is one of those all-encompassing and often vague terms that can be frustrating to try and define, but we’ll give it our best shot.

Customer Empathy Definition:

“Customer empathy is the ability to empathise with your current and potential customers. It helps us understand the needs and feelings of customers and view things from their perspective. Customer empathy can be used by many different departments from customer service to product development to marketing.”

The Benefits of Customer Empathy

In other words, why does customer empathy matter?

It’s pretty straight-forward. It helps businesses see customers as real, whole people.

When we see customers as real people, we understand how our business/service/product fits into their life better.

It gives context like where the product fits into their life, their work, their home. This can help us develop the business across different departments.

The product team sees more external factors that impact user experience. The marketing team can deliver better messaging to match the customer’s emotional journey. The sales team better understand the unique problem the product solves. The customer service team better understand the frustrations of a product not solving that need. 

Overall, the business becomes more customer-centric.

But, the vital step in using customer empathy is to translate what you learn into action.

It’s not enough to understand your customers. You need to take what you know and let it influence and structure your business operations. This allows you to anticipate customer needs before any other competitor. It can increase your profitability and help you grow your business through building brand authority and customer loyalty. 

Organisations lacking customer empathy miss out on vital opportunities.

They don’t really understand their customers, so they can’t develop the best services or products to help them. They miss out on sales because they don’t really understand what USPs would best resonate with their customers. Their marketing messages are mixed and convoluted. Their customer service lacks care.

All this prevents business growth. They’ll see lacklustre sales, poor reviews and high churn rates as customers seek a more empathetic business instead.

Examples of Customer Empathy in Practice

As we said above, customer empathy is useless if businesses don’t take that information and incorporate it into their processes. 

One of our favourite examples of a business developing customer empathy in action hails from Mexico City. The Metrobus company here developed some unique training to help their bus drivers be more considerate road users.

As part of the bus driver’s training, they asked them to cycle in a bike lane as buses drove by them at high speeds. As you can imagine, it was an eye-opening exercise for many of the drivers. It helped the drivers understand how scary - and often downright dangerous - buses could be for cyclists.

This training experience allowed them to see their role from another person’s perspective and how different the experiences were for each. Ultimately, it helped them become more empathetic and responsible road users and improve the service they deliver. 

We’re not saying you should literally walk - or pedal - in your customer’s shoes, though it can’t hurt!

There are many techniques that are a little less death-defying that can help you develop customer empathy in practice. 

Value Customer-Facing Staff

Who knows your customers best? The CEO? The HR manager? The accountant?

Nope.

Your customer-facing staff know your customers best. They interact with them the most. They hear their opinions, thoughts and feelings the most.

Why is it then that these staff are so often at the bottom of the hierarchy?

Throw the hierarchy out and leverage these staff and their insights. Take the anecdotal feedback they receive and action and incorporate it across your business. 

Structured Communication

To best leverage your customer-facing staff, you need to encourage communication across all departments.

This doesn’t mean random emails forwarded here and there but structured communications centred around these insights. To best achieve this, schedule regular meetings between your customer-facing team and other departments.

This formalises the process and makes information sharing a priority for all. This makes it far more likely for these initial insights to actually be incorporated into changes across the business. 

Develop Customer Feedback Opportunities

Besides your customer-facing teams, your best source of information about customer experiences is - shockingly - your customer.

So ask customers for feedback — at any and every opportunity.

Incorporate feedback forms into your customer journey. Ask for feedback on your site. Ask for real time feedback on emails. Go old school and run a focus group.

This qualitative data gives you real insight and helps develop customer empathy across your business. 

Use Empathy When Dealing With Complaints

Customer empathy is always valuable, but perhaps never more so than when dealing with complaints.

The vast majority of people don’t want to complain, they’d rather just have a great experience in the first place. But when working in customer-facing roles, we can often be guilty of forgetting this. Our patience dwindles, our empathy is diminished and there is less motivation to help the customer.

Using customer empathy can help you see things from your customer’s perspective. Ask yourself how you’d feel if you’d been through the same experience they had. Think about how you would want the issue to be resolved. More than anything, actively listen to the customer and reassure them that you are there to help them.

You can do this by using empathetic statements. This could include:

  • “I’d feel like that too in this situation”
  • “I’m sorry you’ve had to deal with this”
  • “Thank you for getting in touch about this”

Customers who feel like you genuinely care to help them resolve their issue, as opposed to feeling as though you’re reading from a script, will be much happier and calmer. 

Exercises to Develop Customer Empathy

There are so many great exercises you can do with employees to develop customer empathy. Besides the user research we mentioned above, you can also use user personas and customer empathy maps. We’ll examine both. 

User Personas

User personas shouldn’t be as simple as the demographic makeup of your customers. They should be a semi-fictional character with depth and complexities that reflect your target customer. 

So yes, you should of course include things like age, gender, location, income and so on. But that doesn’t really examine the needs or feelings of your target customer. 

You can add meaning to your user personas by delving further into the semi-fictional narrative. Build out your unique character by asking:

  • What do they do for work and why?
  • What inspires them?
  • What motivates them?
  • What interests them?
  • What troubles them?

There are so many more examples of user persona questions to ask, but by fleshing out these aspects you should be able to better understand where your business fits into your target customer’s life. Ultimately, you’ll build empathy for your customer by better understanding them.

Customer Empathy Map

A customer empathy map can be a great tool to visualise your customer. You can use our customer empathy map template, or if you haven’t got access to a printer, make your own using the instructions below.

How to Use a Customer Empathy Map

Start with a blank piece of paper and divide it into six sections. Label the sections as below: 

  • What does the customer think and feel?
  • What does the customer do and say?
  • What does the customer hear?
  • What does the customer see?
  • What are the customer’s pains?
  • What are the customer’s potential gains?

Now work your way around the map.

Customer empathy maps actually work great in conjunction with user personas. You can stick your user persona in the middle of your map and refer back to them as you fill out each section. 

The key here is to take the time you need to complete a customer empathy map. The more time and critical thinking put towards your customer empathy map, the more insightful your thoughts will be. This is especially true of the thinking and feeling section of your customer empathy map. It’s great to be able to figure out what your customer may think, but not actually say. 

You can use our customer empathy map template below:

Empathetic Businesses are More Successful

In summary, for businesses who want to out-innovate and out-perform their competitors by continually growing and improving their business, customer empathy is a powerful means to help them do so. For 21st century consumers, it is an expectation of the customer experience, not a benefit.

Customer empathy can help businesses to become less hierarchical and more customer-centric organisations, alongside a myriad of other techniques. This in turn increases customer lifetime value and brand authority. Ultimately, it allows companies to become more profitable and grow.

This isn’t the only tool you’ll need to help you master your customer service. You might find our ultimate guide to business phone etiquette useful in helping you better understand customer needs. 

You might find these related articles helpful too:

About Paul Freudenberg

Paul Freudenberg is a business productivity coach and consultant with a focus on operational excellence delivering improved profitability and business performance, and Founder of Awardaroo in 2005. Paul has set the mission of Awardaroo to help raise UK Business Productivity from one of the lowest in the G7 to one of the highest by 2030. Connect on LinkedIn

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